Flight Paths traces hope and heartbreak for New York’s birds

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Darryl McGrath

Darryl McGrath


By Mahmoud Haidar

More than 22,000 loons, mostly from Canada have died at Lake Erie from food poisoning,  Darryl McGrath writes in her newly published “Flight Paths: A Field Journal of Hope, Heartbreak, and Miracles with New York’s Bird People.”

Biologists find dozens of dead loons at a time on the beaches of lakes Erie and Ontario, according to this bird conservation book.

“Flight Paths” (SUNY Press, $24.95) is about birds and the people who protect them in New York. It discusses the historic and current efforts to preserve their habitats and to protect migratory birds that cross the Great Lakes every year.

The death of water birds in the Great Lakes is a huge problem possibly linked to climate change, but absolutely linked to the introduction of invasive species, said McGrath, who is an editor for New York State United Teachers, an education union in Albany, New York.

The former Boston Globe reporter discusses how invasive species disrupt habitats and poison birds in a chapter titled “Toxic Summer.”

Flight Paths focuses on six bird species: loons, peregrine falcons, bald eagle, short-eared owls, piping plovers and the Bicknell’s thrush.

Three are endangered, one is threatened and two are classified as species of special concern — meaning they warrant attention but current information cannot justify considering them endangered.

McGrath chose the birds based on their different habitats,  locations and flight paths book coverpopularity.

The Bicknell’s thrush is among the rarest birds in the world. The highest population estimate puts them at 125,000 globally, she said.

That is in contrast to the widespread common loon.

Every bird provided a unique and physically challenging field experience. McGrath worked with researchers, which meant she had to run, hike, and climb mountain slopes as they did — often while carrying equipment. She did not carry electronic recording equipment, relying exclusively on handwritten notes.

“When I was out in the field, I was often working under (too) difficult conditions to use electronic equipment,” she said. “They were working, and if I wanted to go along with them, I had to keep up and not interrupt them while they were doing their work.”

Once she went into a bat cave in the Adirondack Park in northern New York. She had to wade in knee-deep water through a narrow and low tunnel.

“I was with a photographer who was working with me, and we were scared to death but neither of us wanted to say we were,” she said with a laugh.

McGrath said she was inspired to write the book when she was a journalist for the Boston Globe. She began thinking about bird habitats and their conservation while researching the environmental impact of a wind-energy project in the Adirondack Park in northern New York.

She hopes to preserve, and remind people, of the rich bird conservation history in New York, she said.

“My book comes out at a time when our state environmental agency has seen years of budget cutbacks, so I hope it serves to remind people in a position to influence the state budget about our very important history.”

She also hopes to highlight the useful outcomes of studying and conserving birds, she said.

“We’re still learning a lot of what puts human beings at risk by what happens to birds,” she said. Studies on the influence of mercury pollution in the common loon could show the long-term effects in humans, such as delayed development.

There is also a concern about a new generation of chemicals, such as the antibacterial agent triclosan, that have ended up in water supplies and consumer products. Studying birds, McGrath said, can provide more insight into human health threats.

“What happens to the birds can happen us,” she said.

Towards the end of her book, McGrath provides four bird conservation policy suggestions for New York and encourages other states to take the same steps.

She suggests New York should adequately fund the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, and take the lead role in identifying and protecting bird habitats.

She suggests the state look into the dangers of new chemical contaminants, including those from consumer and pharmaceutical products.

Lastly, she suggests awareness and celebration for New York’s conservation efforts.

“New York should make sure that the long list of firsts in its commendable history of bird conservation becomes a lasting part of the state’s consciousness,” she writes.

Her book is not only for New Yorkers, but also for anyone interested in environmental justice and conservation, McGrath said.

“New York is the setting, but the topics are applicable to a lot of places around the country.”

She hopes that “Flight Paths” is the first of a trilogy. She plans a second book about the influence of climate change on songbirds and third book on “new generation contaminants” and their influence on birds. She described the topics as preliminary.

“Flights Paths” is available from SUNY Press and Amazon.

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